Slaving away

The Oscar winning ’12 Years a Slave’ has brought slavery into the spotlight once more. Since our trip to Bunce Island I have been thinking about the slave trade from Sierra Leone. I found a fantastic resource which lists all known slave voyages and is searchable by various criteria. This can be time consuming! You can also make some attractive graphs, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to export those, so I have only imported the tables below as an example of what you can discover.  I found the number one destination for slaves embarked along the West African coast around Sierra Leone was Jamaica, followed by Cuba and Santa Domingo, with South Carolina in fourth place, followed by Grenada and, confusingly, Sierra Leone! Some ships must have been coastal vessels gathering slaves from ports along the coast and bringing them to a central point such as Bunce Island.

old bunce island

Bunce Island

This is an old drawing of the slave fort and a Google map image of the fort. ‘A’ is the male slave yard (the female yard is below the trees towards the wall), B is site of the main building, C the rough perimeter and D is the ‘last walk’.

Table 1: Slaves shipped from Sierra Leone

Total slaves Total voyages Average Standard deviation
Slaves embarked * 115274 580 198.7 106.1
Slaves disembarked * 99632 564 176.7 96.4
Percentage of slaves embarked who died during voyage * 114 10.6% 17.1%
Length of Middle Passage (in days) * 110 50.1 19.5
Percentage male * 92 64.2% 11.3%

However, when I refined the search to only embarkation ports in Sierra Leone most slaves were landed in Jamaica, followed by South Carolina, Santa Domingo, Barbados and Grenada. So the large number of slaves bound for Cuba must have been from either Senegal, Guinea ports or Liberia. Slaves did not always ‘go quietly’ and many mutinies happened within sight of the coast – their last hope before losing touch with their homeland. Many are described here. Perhaps the most famous was Amistad, which was made into a film by Stephen Spielberg.

Table 2 only includes slaves embarked in the area of Sierra Leone and shows the peak slaving period being 1751-1800, with a dip in the years of the American War of Independence (or Revolutionary War) 1775-83 during which the main trading nations were occupied elsewhere!

Table 2: Slaves shipped from Sierra Leone showing area of disembarkation

Europe Mainland North America Caribbean Spanish American Mainland Brazil Africa Totals
1563-1575 300 300
1626-1650 90 90
1651-1675 338 455 793
1676-1700 1643 1643
1701-1725 467 1387 1854
1726-1750 148 977 2725 3850
1751-1775 12393 32798 70 45261
1776-1800 1534 35237 36771
1801-1825 1532 9083 159 12 527 11313
1826-1845 284 1023 1307
Totals 486 16903 84002 159 1035 597 103182

[table 1 includes some small islands so has different totals to Table 2]

Table 3 below shows slaves embarked all along the coast from Senegal to Liberia and this shows an early trade to the Spanish American mainland peaking around 1576-1625 and a later trade to Brazil which peaks 1776-1825 and the Caribbean trade, which tails off from  Sierra Leone, but continues from the surrounding countries. This is probably due to the impact of British naval presence around Sierra Leone.

Table 3: Slaves disembarked from West Africa (Senegal to Liberia) by destination

Europe Mainland North America Caribbean Spanish American Mainland Brazil Africa Other Totals
1526-1550 277 137 420 834
1551-1575 895 1492 2387
1576-1600 193 21360 236 237 22026
1601-1625 120 708 22642 236 23706
1626-1650 1060 7738 1121 1839 11758
1651-1675 676 358 4429 3797 150 700 10110
1676-1700 352 1335 21028 2275 1158 49 26197
1701-1725 182 5099 21684 818 5431 33214
1726-1750 2058 15602 38658 33 2971 59322
1751-1775 1151 54682 185843 19313 483 352 261824
1776-1800 9434 140047 180 29755 469 359 180244
1801-1825 18556 53292 2274 33592 6771 114485
1826-1850 27473 7215 7454 42142
1851-1856 1151 1151
Totals 4539 105066 496738 62746 100706 15462 4143 789400

Whilst the slave trade (at least the importation of African slaves to British colonies) was outlawed by the  UK Act of Parliament of 1807 and in the same year USA outlawed the international slave trade, slavery in the British Empire was not abolished until the later Act of 1833, in the French colonies in 1848 and USA 1865. Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888 and Cuba 1886. Table 3 shows that the later years of slave export from Sierra Leone were to Brazil and the Spanish Mainland, once the other destinations became off limits.

After abolition the UK and US navies were active in stopping slave vessels, which became increasingly armed and disguised as merchant traders. The small colony of Freetown, formally adopted as such in 1808, became the base for the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron tasked to stop the slave trade. Unfortunately for the slaves rescued, their point of origin was not considered that important. The primary aim was to return them to ‘Africa’, so for example, a group of Congolese were taken to the new colony of Liberia established in 1820, even though it was a long way from their ‘home’. Many of the returnees who came to Freetown in its early years were Yoruba or Igbo in origin, from what is now Nigeria. At least back on their home continent they were once again at liberty to settle and live as free people.

However I discovered, on a recent visit to the National Archives, that slavery in the Protectorate (the interior of Sierra Leone, beyond Freetown and the peninsula which became the formal colony) was not abolished until 1928! This anomaly occurred because although the Protectorate was taken under English law in 1898, the Frontier Police were not allowed to interfere in ‘cultural matters’, which included slavery[1]. There is considerable correspondence about cross border trading of slaves from Liberia during the early 1920’s in the National Archives. So it took 120 years from the first abolition bill being passed until the people of Sierra Leone were technically free from slavery, which is more than surprising given the reasons behind the founding of ‘Free’town, and, as mentioned above, the fact that it was the base for ending the slave trading!

Thanks to Ann here are two interesting articles about Cubans returning to their roots in Sierra Leone: visiting an Upper Bantu village, visiting the coast

[1] p9 Bradt Guide: Sierra Leone Katrina Manson & James Knight, October 2012

Bunce Island: abandoned slave fort

One Saturday we took a slow boat, not to China, but to Bunce Island, a former slave fort, in the estuary of the Sierra Leone River. We passed the island before on our way down river from Marampa mine, but this time we landed and explored. Briefed already by the exhibition at the National Museum and meeting representatives from the Bunce Island Coalition, we were prepared for the tour. We also had a guide on hand to explain what we were seeing. The hills behind Freetown were misty as we chugged up river. We first clung to the shoreline, which is actually the main shipping lane, past the port, before crossing the main body of water and passing the ferry terminal on the Lungi shore.

Thus we followed the route of the slave ships arriving from Europe. They would have been attracted to the river entrance by bonfires lit on Cape P1110720 Sierra, the promontory which extends furthest west into the Atlantic. Pilots would have boarded the vessels to guide them past the shallow banks in the middle of the river. On our return journey it was low tide and we saw for ourselves how extensive the sandbanks are. Many fishermen had beached their boats on them and were filling sacks – presumably with shellfish.

On the north shore the land has little elevation and little population, so it is tree-lined and green, with a sandy fringe. The sky had cleared and the sun shone brightly on the small boats on the water, including three with sails. There is no jetty on the island, so the boat pulled in to the beach as far as it could, leaving us to step into the water and paddle ashore. We landed besides the remains of a concrete jetty constructed during WWII, but no longer in use, and close to the stone ramp which used to lead up the slope to the fort and down which the slaves took their last walk on African soil. An old cannon with the insignia of King George III lies abandoned on the slope, pointing out to sea.

P1110803The trees beside the landing area have names carved into their bark, but these are not the last legacy of slaves – the trees have grown since the fort was abandoned in the mid 19th century. Looking up from the beach the walls of the former fort loom between the trees which now dominate the skyline. In the era of the fort this area would have been clear of vegetation to give the slavers clear view down river, so they could see both approaching slave ships and pirates or enemies. The fort was attacked by the French four times, and by pirates twice. It was burnt to the ground several times, but was so lucrative that it was rebuilt to carry on the trade. Behind the main wall facing the sea are a line of cannons, but these were insufficient to defend the fort. They were used to salute vessels and as a volley to delay attackers while the traders escaped from the back of the island, upriver until things had quietened down. The island was at the limits of navigability for ocean going vessels.


The old entrance to the fort

It was essentially a trading post.The Europeans traded goods for the captured slaves.  The island was rented from the king of the Bulom (north) shore, Bai Sama, who received annual rent in trade goods (guns, cloth, axes, knives, alcoholic spirits, clay pipes, beads) and married his daughters to the traders to act as spies. He also supplied workers for the fort and neighbouring shipyard. Some 600 free Africans worked on the island or adjacent Tasso Island on which they grew food for the fort and from which fresh water was transported.

Slavery was a trade which had criss crossed West Africa for centuries; raids and skirmishes between tribes resulted in the taking of slaves. These were then traded with other tribes, or itinerant traders and could end up far from their home.  The tales of Olaudah Equiano tell of his abduction as a child in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and subsequent travels across West Africa as he was traded and passed on until he finally took ‘the Middle Passage’ and reached the West Indies. He later settled in Britain and wrote his memoirs to help the abolition movement. A good description of both the trading along the coast and the Middle Passage is found in Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.

The slaves gathered on Bunce Island were treated as commodities, transported in appalling conditions and sold to work on plantations in the New World. The triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the New World made many fortunes and transported thousands of Africans far from their homes. A community in South Carolina, the Gullahs, can directly trace their DNA to Sierra Leone and some have visited Bunce Island in homage to their ancestors.


Cannons with the insignia GRIII abandoned beside the defensive wall


Inside the ruins of the main building

We walked up to the old fort entrance where we found a well, now almost surrounded by the roots of a giant tree. No safety barrier protects visitors from the sheer drop of about 10 metres to the level of the water. We walked up the slope into what would have the ‘the front yard’. This would have been clear of vegetation and the cannons would have been mounted on wooden carriages ready for action, in front of the main building which was two storeys. A covered verandah would have surrounded the upper level, and from here the traders could survey the water to the front and the slave yard to the rear. This balcony is long gone.

In places the walls are seemingly being consumed by the vegetation – somewhat reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Cambodia.P1110750 The ruined walls show that some local stone was used , but much of the interior walls of the main building are of brick, brought as ballast in ships arriving from UK. They would have also brought the goods for trade which were unloaded and sorted next to the main building. Once they had loaded sufficient slaves, fresh water and provisions, they would set sail for the New World.

We walked around the ruins, through the male slave yard and the smaller yard behind, which was for the women and children. Little remains but the crumbling outer walls. Stepping down levels towards the rear beach we passed the former strong room, now almost enclosed by the protective curtain wall of a tree root. There was a separate store for explosives, well away from other buildings.

P1110775 P1110761 Our circular walk brought us back to the entrance, from which we headed south along a quite wide track through the most amazing cobweb strewn palm trees. They would be perfect for a tropical version of Miss Haversham’s house. At the far end was the island cemetery. A few headstones survive, some elaborately inscribed, others just rough rocks. It was very peaceful. The cemetery extended much farther, but is now overgrown. The only grave bearing an African name has become a place of annual pilgrimage for his descendants – unfortunately they are in the habit of breaking off a piece of his gravestone to take with them, so it is a shrinking relic.

Bunce Island is now so tranquil, the trees so beautiful, that it is hard to conjure up the disturbing past. It was an interesting day out, but the difficulty reaching the island (you need to rent a boat) means that it is unlikely to become a thriving tourist spot. That is probably not a bad thing – the ruins can remain, as silent witness to what happened here.

The tranquil cemetery area

The tranquil cemetery area

Our return journey was hampered by the incoming tide which whipped up a few more waves than our flat boat was happy with – several broke over the bows giving us a refreshing free ‘surf look’. Once again we crossed the width of the river and kept to the shore – this time looking for some sheltered water! The bonus was a close up view of the old Fourah Bay College building , founded in 1827 by the Church Missionary Society, in the foreground and the more modern one on the hill behind.

P1110817 (2)

The ruins of the original Fourah Bay College on the right and the modern one on the hill behind (left)

En route back to Aberdeen we passed King Tom bay and saw a marooned boat, apparently washed there by a hurricane.


Roads, Rails and records


Journeys in Freetown, as I have previously described, are rarely straightforward, even with the luxury of my own vehicle. A recent visit to the National Railway Museum was no exception. Accompanied by two intrepid guests from UK we set off with a rudimentary map as guide. We headed downhill and in fact found several stretches of formerly bad road, had been graded and so spared the suspension. We passed the UN Special Court, which was closed on 2 December, signalling a further step on Sierra Leone’s journey out of post-conflict status.

It was not until we had negotiated the first few streets lined on both sides with stalls and pedestrians, who stray, unnervingly for novice drivers, into the roadway three and four abreast, but also magically side step cars as they approach, that we encountered the first problem – a policeman who waved us along a road we had hoped to avoid, instead of towards the junction we needed.  Not to worry, we consulted the map, which showed many streets connecting the road we were on with the one we needed.  We inched up the congested Kissy Road, renowned in Freetown as the biggest traffic jam in town, and looked for our opportunity to turn.  The first street was hardly wide enough for a car and full of stalls and people.  The next was blocked by a wood yard, stacked with timber.  Further along we spotted a policeman at the top of a street, so reckoned it must be navigable. I indicated hopefully and was waved down the street, which fell away in front of us, looking quite promising.  IMG_0083

Steering between people, stalls and wide open drains on both sides we progressed to within stone’s throw of the road we wanted when we realised we had met a poda poda stop.  These are the people carriers which serve as buses throughout Freetown, decorated with colourful designs and varied slogans, many exhorting God/Allah to look after the driver. The poda podas were lined up on the righthand side of the street, so I took the left, hoping to drive past the queue, but was thwarted by a parked car.  We were stuck.  There was no way I was going to reverse up the street, so we were going to have to wait.  The driver next to us kindly told us we would have to join the line, and as the front poda moved away, he let us in.  We then realised that ahead of the parked car, there were two other vehicles, both of which were in the process of being clamped! and there was a tow truck taking one away!  This is a novelty in Freetown.


Just then, a man approached the car which had blocked our way, clamp in hand, and magically the owner materialised to protest.  Soon a crowd and numerous police were arguing and gesturing around us.  The gist seemed to be that the car owner could not enter his gateway because of the parked podas, so had left his vehicle on the street. It was made clear he had to move or be clamped, so he began trying to swing into the driveway, right next to my car.  It was obviously impossible until we moved, which thankfully we able to do when another poda pulled away, now full.  A few minutes later the helpful men who were marshalling the line realised we wanted to get on to the road and had the podas move to allow us out.


“Nellie” built by Manning Wardle in 1915

On our way once more, the rest of the journey was more straightforward.  In fact we followed the line of the former railway, past the Princess Christian hospital to Cline Town, described in 1910 by T J Alldridge as “being a convenient distance from Freetown was formerly one of the principal suburban places at which the leading European merchants had their bungalows..”. There was no sign of these in the congested streets full of lorries in varying states of repair making their way to and from the docks which are close by.

We swung through the colourful gates of the museum and had our choice of places in the parking area.  We were welcomed by the staff and met with visitors from the UK National Railway Museum in York, who are here as part of a lottery funded project to digitalise endangered archives. Only recently arrived, they were still gathering material and working to get their container of equipment released from the docks.

The museum is housed in the old railway workshops, so the rolling stock inside are in context, on rails and in some instances over the inspection pits cut between the rails.   Our local guides were knowledgeable about the items on display and took us on a tour.  They clearly spend a lot of time and effort caring for their charges.


Unfortunately most of the carriages were vandalised before the museum was founded. The metal side panels were removed, so the restorers have replaced them with wooden panels. Notice the panels above the windows which were provided as sun shades. 


A royal view from the Queen Elizabeth II carriage






A special carriage was commissioned for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1961 at the time of independence, but a change in schedule meant she did not actually use it. The museum attracts a variety of visitors but local children (who enter free of charge) come most often – Blessing of Cline Town appears frequently in the visitor’s book.

Some of the older generation must be able to remember the railway in operation (the last train ran in 1974), but for the younger visitors it is simply part of history as the only trains in the country now run to transport iron ore.

For me, it is where my great grandfather once worked.  It was here he was the Locomotive Superintendent and Storekeeper from November 1897 to May 1904. Outside the museum we walked to a nearby compound, now a school, which includes the Bishop Crowther Memorial Church with the dates 1864 and 1891 on the front, and to the right another stone built church building, now without glass in the windows, but being used as a classroom. These buildings must also have been here in my great grandfather’s time. I am gradually finding my way around modern Freetown and trying to listen to the echoes from the past.

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Diversionary tales

“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” 
― David Livingstone

Life here is rarely dull because it is so unpredictable.  A simple outing along a well known route can turn into an adventure. Take this morning, when I set off with some friends for a walk on the beach: outward journey straightforward along beach road, celebrating the extent of the newly graded surface.  We enjoyed our walk followed by coffee/ frozen coffee yoghurt (delicious!) and set off home.  As we began the return leg along the beach road the roadworks stewards with their red and green flags were waving them wildly – both at the same time, so we were a little confused but carried on.  Past the next one who not only waved his flags but gave us a cheery wave of his hand. The next indicated we should leave the carriageway and go along the side of the road, and we continued until we came to a string across the road, but here we found we could go no further. So, we turned around and went another way, round and about by a longer route. Nearing the junction we would have reached earlier, had we not been diverted, we met a traffic jam caused by a large crane obstructing our side of the road. It was lifting the remains of a lorry, which yesterday had careered down a hill, straight over a roundabout (despite very deep concrete kerbstones around it), and into a queue of people waiting for minibuses. We heard that 3 people were killed and many injured.  The driver bailed out and ran away, fearing mob justice. As we eventually began to climb the hill, we saw the remains of a pick-up truck which, at the weekend, had bulldozed two houses, also coming down a hill,  no doubt without effective brakes. It seems healthier to wait around on top of hills.


unfortunately this gives the impression of a good surface!!

My other adventure this week was to a hill, visiting the National Archives at Fourah Bay College, the premier university of Sierra Leone. Founded in 1827 it is the oldest university in West Africa. The first buildings were constructed in the 1840s on a site in Cline Town,  but it was later relocated to its elevated position above Freetown on Mount Aureol. It is possible to drive up from the city, but I chose the ‘country route’ taking me up over the base of Leicester Peak, through Leicester, and along the ridge, before descending steeply and round a hairpin bend to the campus. To describe the road as ‘bumpy’ is an understatement, like describing the Himalayas as molehills.  In some parts it has been graded – they have broken up the worst rocks, and compacted gravel and stones on to this base, but the rainy season has created deep gullies and in one place almost washed away the gravel leaving only bed rock. In other places the remaining veneer of tarmac is potholed like swiss cheese which make navigating round the chasms like trying not to step on the cracks in a block pavement, in the end I just gave up trying to avoid them and instead looked for the ‘best line’.  At the next roadworks section a small dump truck occupied over half of the remaining tarmac carriageway, leaving me the narrowest passage to avoid my outer wheels plummeting down the eroded slope, but thankfully it was just enough! I discovered later that this is ‘Rue de la Paix’ (Peace Road) financed by the EU, so thanks to the EU taxpayers one and all, this road is improving.

P1100812Suddenly the road did improve, and I managed to change up into third gear! But that was a short-lived celebration! This was the start of the campus which was beautifully planned, with blocks of student accommodation on the top of the hill, then staff bungalows with their own gardens and lower down the faculty buildings, all set in landscaped tropical gardens. The campus features in a book I am reading ‘A Memory of Love‘ by Aminatta Forna. Today, it is looking tired and the buildings are crumbling, but the original plan is evident. In it’s heyday, it would have been a state of the art campus, with panoramic views over the city.

I was first directed to the Library building where the National Archives have their office, but the oldest archives are in the Kennedy building, named after JFK – his bust sits on a pedestal in front of it.  Walking up to the 4th floor provided me with some exercise – there is a lift, but without electricity, it doesn’t work. At the end of a corridor a door opened into the archive rooms.  Metal shelving was stacked from floor to ceiling with cardboard archive boxes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything seemed so well organised. I was shown an index book which lists all the records still here, but unfortunately the boxes had been taken out of the store and replaced, but not in the same order as the book indicated, so finding a particular document can be challenging.

P1100818However, I spotted an entry for the ‘Blue books’ which are the annual reports from the colony to London and can be a good source of information.  Fortunately the archivist knew where these books were stored and I was able to find my great-grandfather’s name in the list of Railway employees, along with their wages and dates of leave.  I found out that B S Armes, the Locomotive Supervisor and Storekeeper was relatively well paid.  His salary was £600 pa. Using the average wage index that would be about £216,000 in today’s money. However, making comparisons is difficult and there are many indexes available which give an indication of worth – as measured by per capita GDP it would equate to £313,000.  The General Manager was paid £700 and the train drivers, mechanics and others around £200, which could equal £70-100,000 today. The local clerks were being paid about £24. When I was researching at the UK National Archives in Kew, I found an entry of a letter from the Governor indicating that they were considering bringing train drivers from the West Indies because the British drivers were too expensive and troublesome!

Railway worker's wages

Railway worker’s wages

With the return journey in mind, I could not spend too long pouring over the documents on this occasion, and I set off back up the steep curves of the university road and on to the ‘work in progress’ road. I hope that by the time I come this way again, the works will be well advanced and the passage a little smoother.  Who knows I might get to use third gear a little more often and have less bone shaking.  But, you never know, and that’s what  makes our time here a bit more interesting!

Walking from Leicester to Gloucester and back again

The fingers of urban sprawl are clawing up the hills surrounding Freetown. Trees are long gone and unplanned, unregulated buildings are appearing seemingly randomly only later to be connected by, sometimes precipitous, tracks.  There is certainly no laying of drainage or utility infrastructure prior to development.  It will not be long before this sprawl envelopes what were isolated ‘mountain’ communities, some of the earliest places settled by the returnees, the villages of Leiceister, Gloucester and Regent. This area is referred to locally as ‘mountains’ but Leicester Peak is only 548m above sea level and technically a mountain needs to be 3000m to qualify for the name.  Check this website for a 3D image of Leicester Peak and surrounding area.

I already mentioned the village of Regent in a previous post, but the other two villages nearby date from the same early period. Leicester is just below the EU building which clings to the lower slopes of Leicester Peak, and it is here I began a walk with friends.

Leicester Peak in background, EU building on right

The road is being improved as part of the road development plans and as you can see has reached the ‘graded’ stage. The problem of not getting the tarmac down before the rains can be seen in this photo – rain run-off soon creates deep gullies. The style of the village houses is the same as the Krio houses in downtown Freetown: a base of stone or concrete blocks which raises the house off the ground. Stone steps lead up to the living quarters. Shuttered windows are on all sides to allow the breeze to flow through the house. We also noted that all the upstairs windows have half shutters inside of latticework wood, which seem to act as ‘lace curtains’ ie to give some privacy to the upstairs rooms. The walls are wooden planks and the roofs corrugated iron. One house we passed had walls and roof of corrugated iron – we could only imagine the deafening din during a storm! It looks as though corrugated iron has been used to replace the wooden planks, which mostly have survived remarkably well.

Notice the exterior food larder on the back of this house (looks like no longer used) shielded from rain and sun, with netting walls, it would have been a relatively good place to store food.

The church at Leicester has been here since the arrival of the first settlers, but has been rebuilt. Although as the crow flies it is not far from Freetown – about 5 kms to the first settled area – but imagine the difficulty of traveling those few kilometers cutting your way through dense tropical forest, in temperatures around 30°C and high humidity. Some years after the first settlers were dispatched with supplies for 6 months,  someone was sent to see how they were doing. It took a long time to reach the villages and they were found to be in dire straits, with many settlers having died of disease in those early years. We took a short detour to the cemetery, which is down a grassy track from the road and perches on a spur of the hill overlooking Freetown.

We had arrived rather ill equipped to deal with the vegetation, so could only pick our way along the tracks. We found some old gravestones and some more modern ones. In the foreground here is the grave of Mr William Smith, a leader and lay helper of Leicester Church, who died in 1875, and his wife Nancy, who was born in Gloucester in 1824 and died 63 years later in 1887.

We continued down the road then branched right along a track which lead through the fields towards Gloucester. The fertile soil along the valleys allows the cultivation of vegetables. The hillsides are skillfully terraced and neat rows of vegetables looked lush and thriving.  A shielding row of spring onions (or garlic?) are carefully planted around each patch of lettuces, designed to keep pests at bay: complimentary planting. On the lower ground, irrigation channels surround each bed.

And over the hill near Gloucester, the terracing reminded us of Asia.

 These crops provide a valuable source of income for these families as well as delicious fresh food. The order and labour intensive nature of these enterprises are a sharp contrast to the random and ugly appearance of the areas of urban encroachment nearby and the uncultivated scrubby hillsides.

We crossed the river which runs through Gloucester courtesy of a bridge named after a local man who had been a community leader. There were numerous plaques on the bridge detailing his good works, those present at the ceremony and donors to the cost, but most were in bad repair and hard to read. Up the hill we could hear the children in the secondary school as we passed, before walking behind the stained glass windows of the church  and round to the front and finding opposite it, the primary school. The children were just pouring out prior to going on a visit somewhere.  The Head Teacher was standing in the road with a long length of rubber pipe in his hand.  He assured us it was a pointing tool, not for hitting the pupils.  However it was clear that the stick wielded by his assistant was not only for pointing.

The church is an impressive building which took some years and no little effort to build.  It was certainly ambitious given that the village today is small, but much bigger than the original village in the early 1800s.

The smaller Methodist church we passed on the other side of the valley has a plaque recording its history:

We waved the children goodbye and continued towards Regent,  pausing when we reached a crossroads beside an orphanage, apparently run by a Canadian NGO (but I can find out nothing about them on the internet).  Some villagers under a tree told us about the large building on the opposite corner which they said was supposed to be a community center, but that no one had been inside it. Indeed it was padlocked and behind locked gates. After some discussion and an eye on the gathering clouds we re-traced our steps to the village and took a path down through some gardens, across the small stream and up the opposite hillside, where the path was less clear, but with the help of a woman waving us on and a small boy who put us on the track, we made it to the road which lead back to Leicester. It was an interesting and enjoyable walk, but we were all looking forward to a cool drink and a shower – feeling pretty dog tired.

Flight of Delphine Reynolds and W G Pudney

I like a challenge, but early aviators certainly relished an entirely different level of challenge, facing the elements, unknown territory and the mechanical reliability of early aircraft.  So having found out and briefly described one epic flight in my blog ‘Museum of masks and mysteries’, I delved deeper and here publish what I managed to piece together. So although this isn’t entirely about Sierra Leone, it illustrates the isolation of this British Colony and Protectorate, before modern communications.

Sir James Reynolds was a senior partner in Reynolds and Gibson, a firm of Liverpool cotton brokers, before commanding 1/3rd West Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (Territorial Force) in WWI (awarded a DSO) and becoming a Conservative MP in 1929. Presumably during his trading days, he had visited the west coast of Africa and ‘and saw its immense possibilities’, so he sponsored a flight via the west coast to Cape Town.  The aircraft was his daughter’s Blackburn ” Bluebird ” (fitted with D.H. Gipsy III 105 horsepower engine) and the two pilots were his daughter Miss Delphine Reynolds and Flight Lieutenant W G Pudney, described in Flight magazine as being an instructor in the National Flying Services. A newspaper report suggest that the the plane had a Gipsy III 120 hp air cooled engine with a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour and a range of about 700 miles.

The original flight plan, sent to South Africa for permission, showed R B Waters (then proprietor of the Gatwick aerodrome) as the second pilot, and stated ‘They would have fire-arms and ammunition in their possession but no radio equipment. ‘ This flight was to have left in December 1930 arriving in Cape Town on 10 January 1931, but did not take place. A follow-up telegram said W G Pudney would pilot instead of Waters and estimated arrival 11 March 1931.

Delphine Reynolds and W G Pudney finally took off from Hanworth on 1 March 1931. A tantalising paragraph in the British Film Institute website suggests there may be footage of this event:

“Miss Delphine Reynolds, whose goal will also be Cape Town, hopes to open up air-mail service between London and the West Coast of Africa” . Delphine Reynolds, in flying apparel, with a male aviator standing in front of her bi-plane numbered G-AAVG. She puts on her flying hat and goggles and gets into the cockpit where she is joined by her co-pilot. The aeroplane taxis along a runway and takes off (93ft).

However the aircraft quoted G-AAVG was not Delphine’s, so I don’t know if this is an error in the description or footage of another take-off. She is registered as owing G-ABGF, but both are the same type of plane.

The weather seemed against them from the start, forcing them to land 20 miles north of Bordeaux then having to turn back on the next leg to Toulouse due to bad weather, which also affected them from Alicante to Malaga on March 9.  We should remember that they were flying at much lower altitudes than modern planes, and were therefore far more vulnerable to local weather conditions.

They were waved off at daybreak on 11 March from Tangiers by the British residents  who gave them a bunch of English heather.  They were also given a letter by the Head tribesman “addressed to any Moorish State, in the event of a forced landing in the Spanish Rio de Ora, to the effect that if care was taken to hand us over intact a suitable ransom would be paid to the tribe responsible for carrying this out.” I wonder how effective this letter would have been since when they arrived in the Spanish penal settlement of Cape Juby,  W G Pudney reports “Everyone was astounded to find a lady in the machine. They pointed out that in the event of a forced landing her chances of returning to civilisation were practically nil. My chances were definitely worse as I should have been murdered. “

Even the airfields, such as they were, could be a challenge: they had great difficulty in taking off from Dakar as heavy rain the night before had made the ground soft.  Other hazards were also evident: “The aerodrome at Dakar is situated six kilometres from the town and overgrown by mangos and ant hills in various places.”

They arrived in Bathurst, The Gambia, on 17 March and here the plane was transformed into a seaplane by fitting floats, which had been sent ahead by ship: “when the crate was opened we were surprised to find a huge black mamba. The crate was dropped by the natives who ran in all directions. The floats were fitted to the machine by myself working in the mornings and late evenings.”  No mention of whether Delphine helped, or what else she might have been doing.

“The machine was launched and a christening ceremony performed by the Governor.” They then flew the length of the Gambia river to Basse and French Senegal beyond, but the river was not safe for landing beyond Basse. While spending the night at McCarthy Island  came the mishap – a local boat, the pilot of which was asleep, collided with the moored plane – which damaged the tail plane, elevator and aileron, but after repair with some copper wire the exploration flights continued until they could collect the new parts back at Bathurst. The report says the flight from McCarthy Island to Basse took 3hrs 15 mins, compared to the 24 hours needed by river boat which sailed once a week, but, looking at the distances below, I wonder if it really means from Bathurst to Basse.

A Bathurst  B Basse  C McCarthy Island

On 2 April they flew the round trip to Dakar with the mail, taking 1 hr 30 mins on the outward journey but only 1 hr 5 mins on the way back (which indicates that Bathurst to Basse would be more likely for a 3 hr flight). It seems as though the French already had air mail services along the coast. The next day they flew to Boloma in Guinea Bissau, where they surveyed the area and reported an “aerodrome was being prepared, one kilometre square.” They flew on to Freetown arriving on 4 April in very rough weather and only found shelter in Kingtown bay.  This seemed the only favourable spot apart from further up the river at Loko (a long way from Freetown), or Pepal (on the northern shore of the river) where the mining company was exporting ore (still doing so today – at night the best lit spot for miles around).

On flights further south they found many suitable estuaries for landing.

At the end of his lecture about the flight, W G Pudney made some recommendations for the future: metal used in seaplanes should be either stainless steel or coated with cadnium as all other metals had been badly corroded by the river water which contained an acidic substance. Seaplanes would need to be maneuverable “so as to avoid moving sandbanks and currents, or floating debris.” Hazards included petrol evaporation (3 in 19 gallons – so important to check your tanks if filled the night before!), weather (sea fogs, sandstorms and tornados), the glare of the sun off flat water, malaria, and the tropical heat: “three minutes in the sun without a topee is the equivalent to a hit on the head with a 20-lb. hammer”. And gave a valuable piece of advice “Before taking off in a seaplane on rivers, first taxi half a mile to disturb the water, and crocodiles and hippopotami will disappear and prevent one running your float down. “

Flight magazine suggested that the plane suffered damage taking off in choppy conditions, but W G Pudney says corrosion made the plane unairworthy, and this is confirmed by the register of civil aviation which shows:

G-ABGF Blackburn L.1C Bluebird IV SB.252 G-ABGF Miss Delphine Reynolds/Gatwick & Cowes 07.11.30 2896 Dbr due corrosion Sierra Leone 5.31

Whatever the cause, it seems this adventure went no further.  Presumably the two pilots returned to UK by ship, but what became of the plane is not known.

The narrative above is mostly taken from a lecture given by Fl Lt W G Pudney to the Royal Aeronautical Society on Thursday, October 20, 1932, in the Lecture Hall of the Royal Society of Arts.

W G Pudney was born in Wellington, New Zealand, leaving with the Third Reinforcements in 1914. He was wounded at Gallipoli and invalided to England where he later joined the Royal Flying Corps and was in combat over the trenches. He continued as a pilot both in commercial exploits and joined the nascent RAF. Some years after returning  to the UK from the flight I have been describing, W G Pudney joined the Railway Air Services Ltd, flying between Glasgow and London. In 1937 he returned to Freetown to join Elder Colonial Airways Ltd and began air services between Freetown and Bathurst. [information about W G Pudney thanks to this site]

Delphine Reynolds

Delphine Reynolds

And what of Miss Delphine Reynolds?  Pudney affords her only one brief mention (a lady in the machine) until the closing remarks acknowledging her father as sponsor and their “keeness in aviation” [sic]. How fascinating it would be to find her diaries or memoirs! This was no easy afternoon jaunt, but must have been gruelling at times, with the heat, dust and long distances covered.  It doesn’t seem to have put her off flying, as she went on to own at least two further airplanes, shown below, but no further information about this intrepid aviator seems to be available. This seems to be a book waiting to be written.

G-ABMJ Robinson Redwing 2 4 G-ABMJ EI-ABC Redwing Aircraft Co Ltd /Croydon >The Scarborough AC>Redwing Aircraft Co Ltd >Miss D Reynolds/Gatwick >Miss R Norman /Heston 22.05.31 3179 Sold Ireland 12.34
G-ACKY DH.85 Leopard Moth 7016 G-ACKY VH-ADV VH-RSL VH-BAH Miss D Reynolds /Gatwick >GM Tonge /Croydon 00.10.33 4472 Sold Australia 12.37

Museum of masks and mysteries

Museums attract me like magnets, even when I know I should have low expectations, I always hope to find something of interest on display.  The National Museum of Sierra Leone did not disappoint (click here to read the history of the museum).

It is as central as you can get in Freetown, right next to the famous, ancient Cotton Tree, which is the heart of the nation. In fact, the smaller of the two museum buildings is the old Cotton Tree Station of the Hill Railway. The windows on all sides of the room allowed cool breezes to pass through keeping the interior at a pleasant temperature without air-conditioning.

This appears to be the original station building very close to base of tree.

This new station building  – no date –  is the other side of the tree and later became the telephone exchange, but is now the National Musuem

photo courtesy of

It is said that the on arrival in 1792, the ‘Nova Scotians’ ( freed American slaves who had fought for Britain in the Revolutionary War – under promise of being returned to Africa – and afterwards settled in Canada) walked up the slope from the shoreline and, under this tree, gave prayers of thanks for their safe passage and named the new settlement Freetown.  The tree was later used by approaching seamen as a marker on the shore to identify the settlement.

The roof in foreground is the National Museum

Back of Le10,000 note

Back of Le10,000 note


The importance of the Cotton Tree in modern Sierra Leone is reflected by its appearance on the Le10,000 note and appropriately our ‘donation’ for visiting the museum was Le10,000 and this included a guided tour which was informative.

varous 'devils'

In the old station building we were shown some old wooden masks used by various secret societies, known as ‘poro’ for men. Our guide told us that some of the artifacts were used by the Kamajors, a group formed during the civil war when some of the secret hunting societies banded together particularly in the south. The brutal initiation rites included cannibalism.  Initiates were taught that they were immune to bullets. Although set up as ‘Civil Defense Forces’ these groups were involved in war time atrocities and after the conflict several of the leaders were successfully prosecuted.

Almost half the room is taken up by  ‘devils’ – costumes of raffia, shells, beads, porcupine quills and cloth worn by the ‘devil’ (one of  the most powerful members of a secret society) and which, it is believed, endows him with special powers. Similar costumes are found throughout West Africa.

A ‘devil’ in costume


A double sided shelf unit displayed some wooden masks used only by women.  They are used in the initiation ceremonies of the Bundu/Bondo (Temne) or Sande (Mende) societies.  Young girls are taken into the bush and prepared for womanhood: learning how to be a good wife, but this ceremony also includes ‘cutting’ (female circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation FGM) often with an unsterilised instrument and no anesthesia  so the risks of infection are high, not to mention the pain of the procedure and its after effects. The practise is widespread in Sierra Leone (according to the Bradt guide, it is estimated that 85-98% of women have been cut) and efforts to change this meet strong cultural resistance from women who want to be part of the socially accepted group and by the practitioners who make their living from it and are considered to have knowledge of powerful magic.

One of the most intriguing cabinets contain a selection of nomoli – soapstone carvings of human and animal figures. Many are cylindrical, others more lifelike. A number of them have their hands (depicted in a smaller scale than the faces) on the sides of their faces.  They appear to have been carved with skill and artistry. No information is displayed so this meant I had to research them online.


Their origins remain a mystery.  They are found buried in agricultural areas along the southern coast and are thought to pre-date Portugese contact in 15-16th Century. There is a collection of statues in the British Museum, but little further information.  There are a couple of paragraphs about the nomoli which have been copied by a number of websites suggesting they are 17,000 years old, but I cannot find any concrete evidence for this. The Smithsonian Museum suggests that the figures probably date to the 15th century and are similar to the Sapi ivory carvings (held in MOMA)  traded with early Portuguese traders. Portugal had the monopoly of West African trade from the mid 15th to mid 16th centuries and reportedly “encountered urban centers in West Africa comparable to those back in Europe, governed by elaborate dynasties, organized around apprenticeship-based artistic guilds, and with agricultural systems capable of feeding their large populaces. Many African cities were even deemed to be larger, more hygienic, and better organized than those of Europe.” (MetM) Interesting video here (if your connection is faster than ours!).

I found another research project in the museum: to find out more about DelphineDelphine Reynolds Reynolds.  A scroll is displayed in a dark corner with no explanation.  It was presented to Miss Reynolds on her arrival in Sierra Leone in 1931 on a pioneering flight. I discovered that she was flying with Flight-Lieut. W. G. Pudney (although the original flight plan stated R B Waters as second pilot) in a “Blackburn ” Bluebird ” (D.H. ” Gipsy III “) to the Cape via the West Coast route” according to ‘Flight’ magazine.  The idea was to open up a mail route to Cape Town via West Africa. The flight was rescheduled from January with a revised plan of reaching Cape Town in early March.  However even this timetable slipped and they departed on March 1 from Hanworth, flying south across France. She was delayed in Gambia on March 20th, after a local boat, whose pilot was asleep, ran into and damaged the seaplane.  They had to wait for spares to be brought from Dakar.  The following report was published in Flight magazine:

“We completed a survey with Capt. Doke, the Commissioner, visiting Basse, Fatoto, and Kahur. It is possible to alight on any part of the river in the colony, and conditions here are ideal for all types of metal seaplanes. The temperature is 106° and humidity 85. We are forwarding to the Zoo a chieftain’s gifts of valuable live stock. There were no difficulties with crocodile or hippopotamus in alighting, but when unpacking the float-case we found a black mamba (a deadly snake) in it, and bees swarmed in the cockpit overnight. We are awaiting a new elevator and making tests with a wooden airscrew.” I wonder what the ‘live stock’ was and whether it ever reached the Zoo!

They flew to Sierra Leone but sustained more damage when trying to take off in choppy conditions on 10 April 1931. There was speculation that this might be the end of the trip, but in October 1932 Flight-Lieut. Pudney gave an after dinner speech entitled “Flying Conditions on the West Coast of Africa.” I have yet to find out if they completed their intended itinerary. [Update: see my blog:]

Much of the second room of the museum is given over to the history of  Bunce Island which was the main slave trading fort in this part of West Africa and was indeed still trading when the first free settlers arrived in Freetown, a few miles downriver. Bunce Island was leased from local chiefs who sold men, women and children in exchange for cloth, swords, guns, alcohol and other trinkets. It is estimated that between 1668 and 1807 some 50,000 slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to plantations in the Caribbean and America: in particular to the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia (the then population of the interior beyond Bunce Island were already rice growers), where their descendants today form the Gullah community, which uses a language very similar to Krio.

An island was an ideal place to keep the captives while waiting for ships to arrive to transport them.  Surrounded by water and dangerous currents, stories evolved of crocodiles and water spirits that would catch you if you tried to swim away.  One of these was ‘Mammy water’ the water devil, seen here in carved form.

Mammy water the water serpent/spirit

Mammy water the water serpent/spirit


On a lighter note, another intrepid journey was made on this bicycle. An energetic Sierra Leonian cycled to Kampala, Uganda  (over 4,700 miles) in 1958! No fancy suspension and no gears – this must have been quite a journey! His diaries, kept along the way, are in the cabinet beside the bike.  The equivalent of a blog today!

Charming chimps

According to TripAdvisor the number one attraction in Freetown is the Tacaguma Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which is in the hills just beyond the village of Regent, about fifteen minutes drive from our house. This village was once a remote settlement founded by Church Missionary Society’s (CMS) Reverend Johnson. The church of St Charles on the Hill was begun in 1809 and finished seven years later, reputedly becoming the first stone church in Africa, named after Charles MacCarthy who became Governor of the new Crown Colony in 1816. It has been renovated several times since.

St Charles on the Hill, Regent (circa 1920s?)

St Charles on the HIll, Regent

St Charles on the HIll, Regent 2013

Life for the settlers in these new villages must have been very tough. On arrival the ‘returnees’ (freed African slaves from the Americas and UK) were given rations for half a year and clothes. They were then on their own, cutting the trees to make houses and plant crops.  Of the 70 Europeans sent out by the CMS after 1804, by 1824 over half had died. However the congregation grew from 9 to over 1000. Today the settlement is about to be engulfed by development stretching out from Freetown. This is likely to accelerate once the road improvements are completed – this is the ‘mountain road’ providing a by-pass from western Freetown to Hastings and the interior beyond. The new road is already impacting on the area and its inhabitants who mostly grow fruit and vegetables on the fertile valley floor beside the river.  I have been here several times for shopping. If they don’t have what you need on the stall, they will happily send someone into the field to pick what you need.  As fresh as it comes! The road has taken some of the former farmland and eaten into the sides of the valley.  One week a stall was there, the next, it had been demolished and was set up temporarily on the other side of the muddy roadworks.

Shortly after Regent is the turn to Tacugama, a steep, single track road which winds up the side of the hill, with alarming drops over the side.  If that isn’t hair-raising enough, just before the sanctuary is an instruction to engage 4 wheel drive for the last section – and it was certainly warranted! Some passengers closed their eyes at this point.

The sanctuary’s 40 hectares of forest was allocated by the Department of Forestry and a grant from the EU allowed it to open in 1995. The founder Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila bought their first chimpanzee

 baby in 1988 having seen it for sale up country.  They named him Bruno after the UK boxing heavyweight Frank Bruno. After some years he turned into a 65 kg alpha male, who later lead a well planned breakout of 31 chimpanzees using tools to wedge open trap doors. The tragic consequence was the death of a taxi driver who encountered them and was killed. Half of the escapees soon returned, lured by food, and others followed, but Bruno is still at large.

The chimpanzees are mostly rescued from homes of people keeping them as pets – cute babies rapidly turn into strong  juveniles and an adult male is five times stronger than a human adult, so adult pets are often kept sedated.

Keeping chimpazees as pets is now illegal, so too is killing them for bushmeat – measures recently enacted to try to stop the decline in numbers.  There remains the problem of habitat encroachment.  From a estimated 20,000 chimpanzees in the 1970s, there seem to be now no more than 5,000 in the whole country.

Numbers were also reduced in the past by scientific research – chimpanzees share 98.6% of their DNA with humans – and were used in labs round the world for all kinds of experiments. This close genetic link means that they are also susceptible to human diseases (and vice versa – HIV!) so the chimps arriving at the sanctuary are kept in quarantine and vaccinated when they first arrive to ensure they don’t infect the existing inmates. One of the adults we saw in the final enclosure was walking very stiffly and the guide explained he suffered from polio.

Once they have passed quarantine the youngest arrivals are kept together in the first enclosure.  The juveniles (2-12 years) are kept through the fence at stage two, in a large enclosure full of ropes, tyres and enrichment equipment. We watched them at play from an elevated platform between stages 2 and 3. The youngest chimpanzees sleep in cages at night. The cages are connected to the play areas by enclosed runs, so that the chimps can be moved from place to place without any human contact and to prevent them from escaping.

The Stage 3 group have the run of a large fenced, forest enclosure but come to be fed three or four times a day. This supplements what they can forage for themselves.

In stage 4 they are in an even larger enclosure where they are still fed, but forage more widely and sometimes interact with wild chimpanzees.

There is a resource centre which tells the story of the sanctuary and gives information about ecology and environmental protection.  Photographs taken by motion sensitive cameras in the Western Peninsula Forest Reserve show the diversity of wildlife out there – some previously thought to be extinct. There is an outreach program to local schools to educate children about the importance of eco-systems and preserving the forest and with it, the animals that live there.

You are warned by the guides to keep to the paths and stand behind the nets when observing the chimpanzees because many of them have a habit of hurling stones at strangers.  This began during the war as a reaction to the rebel invasions of the sanctuary.The place was overrun and looted, but thankfully the staff and animals were spared. However, one chimp was badly traumatised and died shortly after.

At the moment the females are given hormone implants in an attempt to stop them breeding because the sanctuary want to be able to accommodate as many orphans as they can. However the presence of a few babies in the largest  enclosure proves what many suprised parents know; that contraception is fallible.

The original idea for the sanctuary was that the chimpanzees would be rehabilitated and ultimately released into the wild. However this is not so easy.  The chimps have had close contact with humans, many have learnt that they are stronger than humans.  They are used to being fed by humans, so the fear is that if they were released and were hungry, they would have no compunction about entering human settlements in search of food, which would not be good for the chimpanzees or humans.  So, for the foreseeable future the best that can be  hoped is that these chimps live as close to a wild existence as they can within the protection of the sanctuary and efforts continue to educate the people and ensure the remaining wild population does not decline further.

It costs US$1000 to take care of one chimpanzee so there is always a need for donations. Apart from the tours, other fundraising activities are the sale of souvenirs, a new book about the life of Bruno and overnight stays at the eco-lodges on site: a very peaceful setting.

Tours are offered twice a day and on the last Saturday of the month, if you get there early, or stay overnight, you can join a bird-watching tour.  But this time we just took the regular tour and will certainly be back to stay overnight on another occasion.

old postcard of St Charles thanks to

Saturday stroll

“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” 
― Rachel Carson
Saturday morning is traditionally the day to clean your house and do the washing, so what better time to head for the beach? We drove down to the ‘town’ beach – Lumley Beach – for a morning walk. We began at the southerly end beside the golf course and headed north. The sky was leaden grey and covering the tops of the hills behind us – an indication of what the rainy season will be like. We hoped this wasn’t an early end to the dry season! However by the time we walked for half an hour and turned for the walk back, the sky was clearing and the sun came through. We had timed it perfectly!

There is no doubt that this is a rapidly developing city, but the proximity of the sea, such a beautiful beach and the forested hills as a backdrop, can give the impression of anything but an urban area of over a million people.

We passed groups of locals, young men in football strips, fishermen hauling in nets and individuals walking or jogging along the sand. No one hassled us, no one tried to sell us anything, in fact no one really took notice of us apart from a few waves and some mumbled greetings.

We had been warned to wear thick-soled shoes, but down on the tide swept hard sand there was no litter, unlike the upper areas of the beach, which in some parts were being swept – outside the beach bars. The beach is on one side of a narrow strip of land between the ocean and an inlet lagoon along which there is a road and some small scale hotels, guest houses, restaurants and shops.

The sea was fairly calm, with the odd break offshore, where there must be a sandbar. However from the sharp angle of the fisherman’s nets, it looked as though there must be a strong current flowing south. In several places teams of seven or eight men were leaning back like well angled tent pegs, feet planted in the sand, pulling on a long rope, the floats of the nets still far out. I liked the look of the rope coiling job which fell to the chap at the back, who therefore had less pulling to do! I did think a pulley with gears would help them.

Further along, three men launched a colourful wooden fishing boat and began paddling kayak style, with rather small looking paddles – they looked the size of conventional oars, but with the ends slightly more diamond-shaped.  They just didn’t look big enough, or enough of them for a largish (4m?) boat on the ocean.

A meeting then took us high up into the hills just above where we live, to probably the best hotel in Freetown, the Country Lodge, although you certainly wouldn’t suspect it was there from the state of the road leading to it! However we bumped and rattled past some amazing old houses, built in colonial times for administrators, sadly now rather run down, but still owned by the government and occupied by civil servants (click on first link to see the houses as they were when built and second link to see them now – towards the bottom of article – along with other historic houses). A former British colonial administration building with a covered stairway looks out over the bay from the Hill Station neighbourhood of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown

Image: thanks to

They are built up off the ground on metal and concrete stilts.  A staircase with a corrugated iron roof (essential in the rainy season!) and lattice-work sides leads to the main living quarters on the first floor, and the kitchen is in a separate block – this was a precaution against fire. The main part of the house is wooden planking with numerous windows. Rumour has it that they arrived as flat packs from Harrods! Ikea equivalent nearly a hundred years ago! It must be said that considering the climate, which is particularly hard on wood, they have lasted very well! The houses are perched either side of the apex of the ridge, overlooking the city in both directions, so they catch the breeze as well as having stunning views. The houses were built after research showed the connection between malaria and mosquitoes. It was thought that up here in the hills there would be fewer mosquitoes. The houses are a short (if steep) walk from what was once the top of the 5.5 mile (8.8 kms) mountain railway from downtown to Hill Station, they are shown as the dots on this map ca 1925.

Map of line from Freetown to Hill Station

Map courtesy of

Country Lodge aspires to be a top class hotel but needs some upgrading to achieve this. However the location ensures a wonderful panorama over Lumley Beach (on the right) and the coast to the south with large tracts of recent development in the valley below and rapidly spreading up the hills.

On our return home, our resident troupe leader visited the balcony:

These are Green Monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops sabaeus) – unless anyone knows better?